Is crawling a critical milestone or not? Here’s what the experts say

Physiotherapist Tracy Prowse explains why crawling is an important, but not essential, skill for development. By Camilla Rankin


For many years, healthcare practitioners have linked successful all-fours crawling with healthy long-term development and your child’s future successes. However, a 2017 UK-based study traced the development of more than15 000 children since 1990 and found that more and more children are crawling less and less, and many are skipping this phase completely.

Tracy Prowse, physiotherapist with a special interest in paediatrics, explains: “In 1991, the United Kingdom (and in 1994, the US) launched a campaign known as the ‘Back to Sleep’ campaign, which stressed the need to put your child to sleep on his or her back and not stomach, in order to reduce the incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or cot death.

ALSO SEE: 5 things you should know about cot death

The success of this campaign led to a sharp decrease in SIDS (by more than 40%), but there has also been an unintended consequence: fewer children learning to crawl. Babies were spending a lot less time on their stomachs and were therefore not developing the neck, arm, wrist and shoulder girdle strength needed to lift their heads, look around and prop themselves up into a crawl position and eventually propel themselves forward.”

ALSO SEE: Activities to stimulate rolling

When to panic?

Never, it turns out. The same UK study also found that these babies were normal in every other way and no developmental differences could be detected between the crawlers and the non-crawlers at 18 months old. The same results were found in an American study – children walked on average at 12 months whether they had crawled or not. In fact, leading US professor in paediatrics, Dr Catherine D. DeAngelis went as far as to say, “Crawling is not much of a milestone!”

Why it’s important

Tracy explains there is much more to crawling than simply learning to cross your midline and developing your muscles. “While there is no doubt that crawling is the first skill in basic co-ordination, developing muscle strength for both fine and gross motor movement, balance and your child’s sense of where she is in relation to the world around her (proprioception), there are other ways to develop these skills if your child does not crawl.

What the process of learning to crawl also develops is resilience, motivation and a sense of achievement. Your child’s path will be made easier if she has had a period of crawling – in the same way that you can run 10km without doing any training, but it will be much harder, less fun and you are more likely to give up. If you child crawls, it shows that she has the muscle strength and cognitive ability to crawl – even if it is only for a couple of weeks. The base is there, now she needs to maintain it. If she doesn’t crawl, she will learn those skills in other ways, at another time, it may just be slightly more work for her.”

ALSO SEE: How to get your baby crawling

Good crawl, bad crawl

“There is no such thing as a bad way to crawl,” assures Tracy. “Crawling is more about promoting independence and giving children the chance to explore and discover that they have the ability to get what they want, and get to where they need to, by themselves.” So, don’t worry about the style of crawling: bum shuffle, leopard crawling or crawling on all fours – the important part is that they are mobile. The amount of time they crawl for is also not important; if they have crawled – in any way – it shows that they have the muscle strength and cognitive ability. The trick is giving your child many opportunities during the day to maintain this muscle strength.

What can I do?

“Play, play, play!” says Tracy. “You don’t need to rush off to a professional or buy expensive toys or equipment. Play is the best way to develop and maintain muscle strength – and children, if given the opportunity, naturally choose activities and games that develop all the necessary skills.

  • Tummy time for babies
  • Climbing up and down from the couch, bed or even cot for toddlers
  • Climbing trees
  • Playground activities such as climbing frames and monkey bars
  • Messy play with water, mud and sand
  • Wheelbarrow races
  • Helping with household chores, such as carrying a small basket of washing to the machine
  • Filling up and carrying a watering can to pour on the garden
  • Tidying up their books and toys and even tearing up old documents or telephone books!

Of course, you need to make sure that your child is safe and supervised during these activities, but she must also be given the chance to be independent and to explore.”

ALSO SEE: 5 fun ways to encourage your baby to crawl

Activities for older toddlers

  • Encourage upright activities that will help build arm, wrist and shoulder girdle strength, such as packing her own cups and plates back into slightly higher cupboards
  • Carrying, lifting or pushing heavier objects around
  • Helping to take the dustbin out or stacking blocks and books.
  • You can also set up ‘art stations’, with easels, chalkboards, whiteboards or paper stuck onto a wall for painting and drawing standing up.
  • If you are okay with mess, you can even give your child washable crayons or whiteboard markers and let them write on the windows.
  • Bath crayons on shower walls are also fun and super easy to clean.

Crawling is no longer seen as an indicator of underlying developmental issues, and if your child skips this phase there is no reason to panic. There are plenty of ways to help your toddler develop the necessary muscle strength, co-ordination and motor skills, and even the less tangible skills of resilience, perseverance and grit through, as Tracy says, “getting down and dirty with your child, and playing”.

ALSO SEE: Tummy time – why it’s important for your baby and how to start

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